Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Comic Al Franken is going to run for the Senate (maybe he will bring some much-needed hilarity to the proceedings)

Vote for Me, Al Franken – by Richard Corliss/Time Magazine

In Illinois a week before the 2000 election, Franken joked that "It would be much easier for me as a comedian to have Bush as President. It would be a gold mine."

Well, Bush's presidency did change Franken's career. It made him a best-selling author, of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (a book whose subtitle cued Fox News to sue him, unsuccessfully of course, for appropriating the channel's catchphrase) and The Truth, With Jokes . In 2004 his passion to mobilize progressives against Bush's war, and for the election of a Democratic President, landed him the job as host of a daily, three-hour talk show on the new liberal network Air America Radio, where — for a time, and in a few markets, among certain demographics — he got higher ratings than Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.

Now, at 55, the cum-laude graduate of Harvard, longtime cast member-writer on Saturday Night Live and co-author of the alcohol-horror movie When a Man Loves a Woman thinks he's good enough and smart enough — and doggone it, enough people like him — to be the next U.S. Senator from Minnesota. On his final Al Franken Show, he announced that he is running to reclaim the seat that Sen. Paul Wellstone lost when he, his wife and daughter were killed in a plane crash two weeks before the 2002 election, and which was won by Republican Norm Coleman. The New York City-born Franken, whose parents moved to the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park when he was four, has long honed his campaign slogan against Coleman: "I'm the New York Jew who actually grew up in Minnesota."

Regular listeners (and I'm one of them) had expected this announcement for more than a year. There was a time, early in his move from Manhattan to Minnesota last January, when he was interviewing every progressive candidate in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. ("If elected, I promise not just to catch dogs but to care for them.") Lately, we knew Franken was serious about running because, when guests would start dissing Coleman on the air, he would change the subject. He knew that FCC laws forbid a declared candidate from having his own radio show.

In the last segment of his last show, Franken made it official. "I've decided to move on to another challenge... I'll be running in 2008 for Paul's seat." With an artful blend of humility and pride, he said, "I know I have an awful lot to learn from the people of Minnesota." Sounding a tad like Stuart Smalley, Franken said he was running "to help our country become everything I hope it can be and everything I know it can be."

In a way, Franken has been running for office since the late '70s, when he would appear on SNL's Weekend Update segment and announced, "Vote for me, Al Franken. You'll be glad you did!" In his possibly ironic role as a relentless self-promoter, he proclaimed the 1980s "the Al Franken Decade." In 1999 he published Why Not Me?: The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency , the myopically prophetic account of how he won the 2000 election and shortly thereafter lost the presidency (though his attempt to personally kill Saddam Hussein sounds like a natural poll-gooser, doesn't it?).

Franken could have made millions more writing books and giving speeches than he did as a talk-show host — especially for a network that often didn't pay his back salary. But he had been startled to learn that 21% of Americans got most of their news from talk radio, which at the time was overwhelmingly right-wing. "I didn't want to sit on the sidelines," he said today, "and I believed Air America could make a difference."

On his first Air America show, Franken said of Bush, "He is going down." He and the network's other staffers became an arm of the Democratic National Committee, air-brushing John Kerry's defects as a campaigner and treating their ideological ally Ralph Nader as a war criminal for daring to run again. Air America didn't elect Kerry. Nor could it keep from losing two important stations in its first weeks and, two and a half years into its existence, declaring bankruptcy. But the network survived, with Franken as its marquee name, Randi Rhodes as its brassy afternoon attention-getter and the nonpareil Rachel Maddow offering a beguiling version of Democracy Now with animal sound effects.

Franken fancies himself, apparently, as a singing comic. He'd warble a soulful "Misty" for Christy Harvey of the Center for American Progress; croak a version of "Bad to the Bone" for "resident ethicist" Melanie Sloan; shriek "Born in the USA" for Norm Ornstein, the lonely liberal at the American Enterprise Institute; play the "Little Elephant March" from Hatari for Washington insider Tom Oliphant. They and a few others — Joe Conason, David Brock, Lawrence O'Donnell, David Sirota — became Franken's daily or weekly regulars, his cabinet, his think tank. If the show occasionally droned, it provided high-calorie, factual information.

Indeed, in its three-year life the show has gone from heavy on the comedy to nearly banishing it. He might refer to Ornstein as "the wonkiest wonk in wonkdom," but Franken was in the top 10. He might use Grateful Dead clips as his bumper music, but in the last months his favorite sound bite has been William Kristol's comment, on Apr. 1, 2003, dismissing the "pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shi'a can't get along with the Sunni, and the Shi'a in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq's always been very secular." He must have run that clip 50 times, and with each playing he summoned new reserves of outrage.

At the end he could crack a joke. When Conason mentioned that columnist Dorothy Thompson was thrown out of Germany in 1935 for criticizing the Third Reich, Al ad-libbed: "You know what was her sin there: she compared Hitler to Hitler ." But now he has to watch his mouth — and what has come out of it the past 32 years of his public life.

For his arrival as a candidate has been long anticipated — especially by those ready to nail him, to link, say, al-Qaeda and al Franken. Today, Conason said, "I'm sure there's a catalog of jokes" that his enemies were waiting to spring on him. (Franken mentioned one: his faux-ignorant observation a few years ago on John McCain's half-decade in Viet Cong captivity: "I mean anyone can get captured. Isn't the idea to capture the other guy?") Franken has to hope that the state that nurtured Garrison Keillor, Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the Coen brothers knows both how to take a joke and when somebody is telling one.

But they also have to get used to Franken's tears. The guy can be simultaneously tough and soft; you could call him a prickly sentimentalist. The other day he sobbed softly as he read the lyrics to American Soldier , by Dixie Chicks tormenter Toby Keith. While denouncing U.S. policy on Iraq, he has been a firm supporter of U.S. troops in Iraq. "As far as I know," he said today, "we were the first in the media to champion Operation Helmet... to provide helmet liners to our Marines" — an effort that "saved lives and brains." He has often misted up when discussing the troops he has entertained and learned from on one of his seven USO tours to Iraq since 2003.

In a speech on his already-purring campaign website (www.alfranken.com), the new candidate says, "I talked to Minnesotans and listened. They told me that they're sick of politics as usual — and they're sick of the usual politicians." Enter the clown, who's ready to play not Hamlet but Disraeli.

1 Comments:

At 2/17/2007 8:44 AM, Anonymous Jonathan Moore said...

Something real interesting is ourcountry.com made an animated cartoon of Al Franken running for president about a month ago. Art imitating reality?

 

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